his·to·ri·an (hĭ-stôr’ē-ən, -stōr’-, -stŏr’-) noun. (1) A writer, student or scholar of history. (2) One who writes or compiles a chronological record of events; a chronicler. — The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.
As neat and simple as it seems, the definition of the term “historian” morphs into murky territory.
Investigator, researcher, documentarian, professor, storyteller, alarmist, revisionist—all these labels fit into the job description.
Yet when it comes to Howard Zinn, the celebrated historian who passed away recently, the role often devolves into one of two directions: either as the master editor/revisor of the historical narrative or a storyteller of an altogether different story.
Zinn tried to be both, and it is this dichotomy that intrigues me…as well as frightens me.
Of course, the first stop is looking back at Zinn’s seminal work, A People’s History of the United States. First published in 1980, and revised in numerous additions, People’s encapsulates Zinn’s mission in history: to shatter the prevailing narrative of American history, driven by leaders, generals and “old white men” and create a new arc of historical analysis based on social and economic movements from below.
It was among the first “bottom up” histories of our country, and it still provides useful insight.
We know today that the upheaval and fluidity of American society cannot be ignored when it comes to history. After all, Washington needed an army. Carnegie needed workers. Lincoln needed conscripts. Jefferson needed concubines (just kidding).
Zinn did make sure that those left out of the prevailing narrative—the working class, minorities, immigrants, etc.—have a definite and active place in the story. For the most part, this is completely justified. In a democratic society, the arc of history is indeed a tug-of-war between the ruling elites from above and the working masses below. Until the 1960’s, the elites have won out. The historical literature of this country has largely been constrained to the wealthy, educated Caucasian elite, holding a monopoly on the written word in America.
Zinn wanted to make sure that those who truly did the heavy lifting were not forgotten, but celebrated. For this, all historians should be grateful.
Yet it is the subsequent direction of his work that made me fearful.
Instead of providing an alternative arc or a complementary narrative, Zinn’s outlook has been accepted by the Left as a new orthodoxy. His “textbook” has become required reading in classrooms throughout America. Much of Zinn’s ideology, as well as the historical content, are taken as fact by many in the academic community, simply because it runs counter to the conservative antecedents of history.
This is the problem. Zinn himself said that his work was not “an unbiased account.” Yet even he sees that People’s shouldn’t be completely objective, but rather an account of those left out based on the contrarian bias.
Yet isn’t history about finding the truth, no matter how painful, and dealing with its effects? Does one bias necessarily ameliorate another? They’re both wrong, aren’t they?
I’ve tackled Zinn-like postulations before, in my look at Native Americans. Take a look at this sentence from Chapter 1 of People’s:
“What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortes did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots.”
This is the kind of blanket statement that Zinn peppers throughout his text. While it is accurate that Native Americans were mistreated by European explorers and settlers, often in horrific numbers, Zinn rarely puts any nuance to this story. The whites are the enemy, period.
What Zinn neglected to mention were the internecine wars between the Aztecs and their subject peoples (which Cortes exploited), the recurrent—and powerful—Inca insurrections that lasted well into the 18th century, and the complicity of other tribes, such as the Mohegans, Narragansetts, and Wampanoags in the problems with the Pequots. I guess all that doesn’t fit on a pamphlet very well.
In his zeal to make up for past wrongs, Zinn painted with such a broad brush that the detail work got lost in the rollers. Whitey has to look bad regardless of the cost. This makes for great propaganda, but terrible history.
A professor of mine once told me that even the great philosophers of Western civilization—Plato, Aristotle, Kant, even Marx—understood that there is no answer to that all inclusive question “What is truth?” Yet the academic mind understands that there is still value in searching for that truth.
Howard Zinn saw a chapter of history that was clearly neglected. This is commendable. Yet his ideology got in the way of the history, so much so that I question whether or not Zinn was a decent historian at all.
Attached is a copy of Zinn’s seminal work from History Is a Weapon, a website that focuses on progressive revisions of history. Please feel free to read it, or reread it, and give your opinions.
In re-reading this thing, I honestly think Zinn could spin a good yarn. But it’s a crappy history book.
The Treacherous Rainbow of Identity Politics in History
I’m always uneasy when government messes with actual classroom instruction—even when it’s for the best intentions.
The day before I left for California, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law SB 48, an education bill designed to acknowledge the achievements of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) individuals in California and American history. Furthermore, the bill thwarts educators, administrators and school districts from advocating instruction or material that discriminates against said individuals.
It’s a law that really only adds to the current law acknowledging women and minorities—an amendment that, at least in California, is a long time coming. Obviously, more traditional sectors of the state are up in arms over this.
Yet I wouldn’t have thought that a metropolitan newspaper not affiliated with Rupert Murdoch would also be fanning the flames.
The Sunday of the 17th, the Los Angeles Times printed a blistering editorial condemning SB 48 as an affront to free expression. While citing the importance of the gay rights movement—and the dangerous right-wing politicization of education in Texas—the Times nonetheless asserts that
I know some gentlemen in West Hollywood that will be cancelling their subscriptions.
However, the folks at the LA Times (shrill as they are) may have a point. Let’s look at the new amended law piece by piece:
Not much of a value judgment here, but who’s to say all these groups actually contributed all the time everywhere? Could it be all those Pacific Islanders that threw spears during the Boston Massacre? The disabled regiment that flung their wheelchairs up Marrys’ Heights at Fredericksburg? The enslaved African on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation that kept admiring women’s petticoats and just wouldn’t mate with the girl of the master’s choosing?
Fine, these are extreme, even silly examples. Yet it gets to the concerns many educators have about things like this: Who is the arbiter of what a contribution is, an achievement, the “correct” or “accurate” role of a group or individual in society? The law gives no indication as to who’s responsible—and the state doesn’t seem to step up to the plate with a curriculum or sample units.
Does this include activities that, on the surface, seem divisive, but are meant to prove a point about discrimination and prejudice—activities like role-playing, viewing/analyzing propaganda films from Nazi Germany, scrutinizing literature from hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, etc.? I use lots of material that California would probably throw me in San Quentin for, but that doesn’t make me a bigot.
Of course, this includes works by Plato, Aristotle, several Biblical authors, Martin Luther, William Shakespeare, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Voltaire, Rousseau, George Orwell, William Faulkner…get my drift?
Ok, so we have some direction now. “Governing boards,” i.e. district boards or boards of education, will make the determination as to what is offensive or not.
That means the LA County Schools should be following the same guidelines as those in money-loaded Orange County or the rural hinterland of the north, right?
This is a lot of nitpicking, but it serves to show how politicizing these seemingly innocuous laws can be. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging the important roles of diverse groups in our great history—GLBT, white, black or otherwise.
Yet shedding light on a darkened past does not always yield positive results.
First, not every group contributed to American history all the time. We’re a big country, a country of regional contrasts and diverse populations that were both mobile and provincial. Sorry, but that’s the facts: some people just didn’t have a huge impact on certain places. The missions of Spanish California would’ve heard about the American Revolution, but scarcely anyone would’ve actually gone to enlist in the Continental Army.
Furthermore, a group or individual’s achievements often have little, if anything, to do with their identity. Their labels may have helped or hindered them in society, such as Blacks and other minorities, but their achievements are often singular, and can also transcend any petty labels foisted on them.
Also, and this is especially true of GLBT studies, there is a tendency to find and pigeonhole people into groups that (a) don’t really belong, or (b) didn’t do anything that important. I worry that historians and textbook authors will scour for evidence of petticoats and makeup amongst the closets of the Founding Fathers to find anyone—ANYONE—that is both GLBT and important. Even worse, the zeal to “out” historical figures could lead to misapplying or even falsifying evidence to prove a point.
Finally, and definitely most importantly, many individuals of “disadvantaged” groups did some not so nice things—a fact often whitewashed in many textbooks. Many of the slave rebellions in the New World involved gruesome violence on the part of the enslaved people themselves. Native American conflicts also involved acts of butchery at times. Were they justified? They certainly had a reason to be so angry.
Yet a burnt house and a bludgeoned infant cannot be erased from memory—nor should it.
History is not just about the good times. The bad times, the bloody times, the gruesome, gory and horrifying times are often more important. It often takes a crappy situation, an act of weakness or a horrible mistake to show the true depths of human character.
To take into account only the accomplishments of a group negates the very real human qualities of the individuals that, in the long run, probably make more of a difference.
While the State of California probably had the best of intentions with SB 48, the law leaves a lot of unanswered questions—questions that may best be left to the educators themselves, with guidance from administrators and academics.
In the pursuit of historical truth, inclusion is almost always preferable to exclusion. Yet the zeal to include everyone should not blind us to the inconvenient facts…
…and the destruction of the truth does no group any good.
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